Santa Barbara is known for many things—the beautiful Spanish-style buildings, the sunny beaches, the famous residents (Rob Lowe, Cat Cora, Oprah). But this southern California city and its surrounding area have become famous for something else: fantastic wine. In the past decade, Santa Barbara county has become one of the most exciting wine regions in the United States. With five distinct AVAs, the West Coast’s only east-west transverse mountain range (the Santa Rita Hills), and a supportive environment in which the best winemakers collaborate rather than compete, Santa Barbara wine country produces everything from bright sauvignon blancs to rich syrahs and even some unusual sparkling wines.
It used to be that you had to drive around the county or book a pricey tour to enjoy all of this vinicultural bounty. But not anymore: Many of the best wineries in both the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Maria Valley have opened tasting rooms in downtown Santa Barbara. Now you can sample many of the best wines from renowned local vineyards just by taking a leisurely stroll along the city’s Urban Wine Trail. Here are seven of the most interesting wine tasting rooms in town.
Jim Clendenon has been making wine in Santa Barbara County since 1982, long before the world started to take notice of the region. Before opening his winery, Clendenon studied with Louis Jadot and other winemakers in Burgundy, and his wines show the restrained, balanced style that he learned while in France. The Au Bon Climat tasting room is located in a vine-covered Spanish-style building in Santa Barbara’s Presidio neighborhood and houses a collection of over 100 different wines. It doubles as a library for older vintages that can’t be found anywhere else and offers wine tastings where you’ll sample the winery’s acclaimed chardonnays and pinot noirs, like the bright, crisp, and slightly oaky Santa Barbara County chardonnay and the bold but balanced Isabelle pinot noir.
Although Doug Margerum only founded his winery in 2001, as the former owner of the award-winning Wine Cask Restaurant and an adjacent wine store that championed local wines, he has been an important figure in the Santa Barbara wine community for decades. At the Margerum Tasting Room (which is next door to Au Bon Climat) you can try wines like his acclaimed Sybarite sauvignon blanc, which has the bright acid and minerality typically associated with New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc balanced with the fuller-bodied stone fruit flavors.
Many of the city’s Urban Wine Trail tasting rooms are clustered in the “Funk Zone,” a rehabilitated industrial area near the beach. One of the biggest is Santa Barbara Winery, which is also the oldest winery in the county. Started in 1962 by Pierre Lafond, it was the first winery to open in Santa Barbara since Prohibition and had to use grapes shipped from northern California until Lafond also planted the region’s first vineyard in 1964. These days the winery produces a vast variety from the chardonnays, pinot noirs, and syrahs the Santa Ynez Valley is best known for to less common varietals like langrein and primativo.
Across the street from Santa Barbara Winery is the tasting room for Pali Wine Co., which opened in 2005 and specializes in pinot noir. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and large patio, the spot feels like a cross between a traditional tasting room and a wine bar and is a favorite place for locals who want to enjoy a glass in a relaxed atmosphere. To learn about all the ways one grape can be used, order a flight of pinots ($15), which includes the Huntington, a medium-bodied wine that tastes of ripe red fruits with a hint of smoke, and the Durell, which has a complex, smooth flavor with hints of plum and black currant. Then try a glass from the winery’s Tower 15 label, which makes a wider variety of wines, including a delicious, fruity rosé.
Just one block away is the small, comfortable tasting room for Riverbench Winery, which specializes in pinot noirs and chardonnays from the winery’s vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley AVA. The tasting room offers flights of five different chardonnays or pinots, and it also offers a flight of its champagne-style sparkling wines—some of the few sparkling wines being produced in the county. There’s the Cork Jumper blanc de blancs, which is bright and crisp but has a surprising smoky bacon flavor on the finish; the blanc de noir, which has a hint of licorice on the nose and a rich flavor of pear, apple, and lemon; and the demi-sec, which has hints of peach candy and a surprisingly light finish.
Tucked behind Riverbench, away from the street, you’ll find the spacious tasting room for The Santa Barbara Wine Collective, which showcases the wines of five different local wineries: The Pairing & The Hilt, Notary Public, Fess Parker, Babcock Winery, and Ca’Del Grevino. The Wine Collective’s goal is to teach visitors about the unique terroir and microclimates of Santa Barbara County and demonstrate how those qualities affect the area’s distinct wines. The extremely knowledgeable staff can take you through a wine tasting from one specific winery or even just one varietal—showing you, for instance, the full range of chardonnays produced in Santa Barbara’s wine region. Alternatively, they can design a curated tasting to explore just one corner of the county and teach you how winemakers can produce wildly different wines from grapes grown only yards apart.
In a quieter part of town about one mile from the “Funk Zone,” Craig Jaffurs, the owner and winemaker of Jaffurs Wine Cellars, makes some of the best wines in the area. The tasting room is located inside the industrial-feeling winery. (Watch out for forklifts in the small parking lot.) For a tasting fee of $15 you can try wines like their viognier, which tastes of honeysuckles; their jammy, smoky, slightly spicy grenache; and, if you’re lucky and they happen to have it open, their reserve Upslope syrah, which has a rich, spicy flavor with notes of dried cherries and oak.
This article originally appeared online in December 2015; it was updated on August 23, 2018, to include current information.